History of Santa Rosa County, A King's County

by M. Luther King. Used with permission.

BAGDAD'S BACKGROUND

Any historical narrative concerning the development of this part of the state must be pegged to Bagdad, for reasons that are obvious. For more than one hundred years the name was synonymous with the progress and development of a larger region. Here during that time was, at times, the largest lumber manufacturing plants in the entire country.

The name Bagdad is one that conjures up fascinating pictures: that famous city of the Middle East, the queen city of Mesopotamia, the city between the two great rivers.

The location of our Bagdad between the two larger rivers of the region probably accounts for the name. It is located at the mouth of Pond Creek on a grassy, pine-covered peninsula between Escambia and Blackwater Rivers. As Blackwater spreads out into a tidal estuary here it is very appropriately named the Bahia Santa Maria de Galvez.

Bagdad is located at the mouth of Pond Creek on a peninsula between Blackwater and Escambia River. (Note square - Bagdad's location.)

 

At a time, about 1825, a young man got into rather serious trouble with some of the excitable Latin bloods in New Orleans. When the score was posted he found he had killed a man under such circumstances that would be hard to explain to officials of justice there. That young man became a fugitive from justice. He made his escape in a pirogue, bateau, or more prosaically perhaps, in a dugout canoe. He travelled along the coast, finally stopping at the brickyard of John Hunt near Bagdad. Here he hired out as a laborer and proved to be a good worker, frugal and conservative. Living then under a system of free enterprise, he soon accumulated enough to cast around for an opportunity to go into business for himself.

Certain records seem to indicate that in 1817 the King of Spain, through His Majesty's agents in Pensacola, made a cession of land to one of His Majesty's subjects, Juan de la Rua. The consideration of such concession was that there be delivered to His Majesty's agents at stated times and at stated places specific amounts of yellow pine lumber. This concession of land was about three miles upstream on Pond Creek above Bagdad at Arcadia. The construction of a mill was begun. By 1828, however, la Rua had become discouraged; labor troubles were not the least of his disappointments since unfriendly Indians would not allow him to keep dependable labor in any sufficient numbers. So in that year the title to Juan de la Rua concession passed to Joseph Forsyth.

It must not be thought that the concession made to Juan de la Rua was at all an isolated sort of thing for there are recorded at about the same period approximately forty others - some of them under similar conditions and others under vastly different conditions. Some of the recipients were subjects of the Spanish King who wished compensation or who wished estate holdings in America under the impending change in title to Florida. Others were migrants from nearby states of the United States. Some of these were answering the migratory urge of the pioneer spirit and no doubt some were, or would shortly be, finding it uncomfortable in the old locality. Titles to these concessions were confirmed under special orders of special sessions of United States courts sitting for that particular purpose. The most of such confirmations were completed before Florida became a state of the United States.

Joseph Forsyth began immediately the construction of a waterpowered sawmill on the tract of land. Power was to be supplied by a dam constructed across Pond Creek at that place.

Mr. Forsyth was dogged by the same labor trouble as had been his predecessor. He knew the answer to the labor problem but he lacked sufficient capital to make the necessary investment. Just at this time, fortunately for Forsyth, two North Carolina gentlemen, who-had some capital and who had been attracted by the stories of satisfactory investment possibilities in Florida, arrived here. So we find that in 1830 Andres P. Simpson and Ezekiel E. Simpson jointly became partners of Joseph Forsyth in the firm of Forsyth and Simpson. The labor problem was solved by the purchase of a large number of slaves.

An examination of the railway records of Florida reveals that in the year 1838 there were three railways in the state, but only two were in operation - these two having a total mileage of twenty-one miles. One of these railways is listed as the Arcadia & Blackwater Railway which had a mileage of three miles and was in Escambia County. This railway, of course, is the one that was constructed by Forsyth and Simpson to carry lumber from their mill at Arcadia on Pond Creek to shipside at the confluence of that stream with Blackwater River. New Orleans, being the best market in this region for yellow pine lumber at that time, made this a very satisfactory arrangement for them. That railway, like all railways of the time, was none too satisfactory with rails simply faced with iron, rather than being made solidly of iron, and having a motive power of mules.

The most satisfactory solution for that problem, of course, would have been to move the sawmill to the waterfront. This solution, however, made it necessary to consider the problem of water supply for the motive power at the waterfront would have to be steam and without the deep wells or the water-treatment facilities of today, it would be impossible to use the brackish water of the waterfront in the boilers. The solution to the water problem was a very ingenious one. A small stream about a mile above the new mill site was dammed to create a working head of water and the water was conducted through pipes to the mill site. The most ingenious part of it all was the piping which was two inch holes longitudinally through the center of pine timbers with couplings of handforged and heat shrunken iron ferrules. These couplings are, in some instances, in good condition, even today.

The removal of the sawmill from Arcadia to the waterfront meant the abandonment of the power facilities at Arcadia unless some other use could be found for them. A quotation from the Pensacola Gazette under the dateline of February 14, 1841, is of interest in that connection: "Some gentlemen, we learn, are about to establish a cotton factory at, or near, Arcadia in this county." Quite confusing it is then to find in the Ancient City, also published in Pensacola, under the date line of January 15, 1841, this quotation: "The cotton factory on Blackwater River twenty miles from Pensacola is worked entirely by white overseers and Negro operators." Quite reassuring, then, is the quotation from the Pensacola Gazette under a date line of April 8, 1848: "Arcadia Cotton Factory rough 24 looms and turns out 100 yards of cloth per day. Work by slave labor alone."

Substantiating the statements from the press are these excerpts from the Acts of the Legislature: Chapter 65, 1845 that hereafter the name of the Escambia Manufacturing Company shall be the Arcadia Manufacturing Company and the capital stock of the said company shall be divided into shares of $100 each, any thing in the original act of incorporation notwithstanding." It is to be presumed that the cotton mill started its operation about 1840, that it was under the supervision of two ladies, Misses Dennison who came here from New York State for that purpose. This cotton mill probably continued in operation until 1852 when both ladies succumbed to yellow fever. During this interval, however, they had become the wives of James Creary and E. E. Simpson.

In 1855 Joseph Forsyth died and was buried in the peaceful little cemetery atop the hill overlooking the millsite that had meant so much to him.

The years following 1855 were troublous ones. The "Company", by then known as Simpson and Company, showed rare foresight in the moves of the next few years. Realizing that a civil conflict was imminent and that their financial affairs handled by a New York concern would likely come under confiscation orders, they sent R. M. Bushnell, a firm member to that city to take care of that matter for them, which he was successful in doing. James Creary, another firm member, was left at Bagdad to care for their interests and property there. Most of the other firm members then took themselves and their families away from the coastal counties into the interior where they spent the whole period of the war. Following the war all members of the firm returned to their places in Bagdad to find, that for the most part, it had been destroyed by fire, in part by the Confederates to keep it from failing into the hands of the Federals, and in part by the Federals to keep it from being of any use to the Confederates. One landmark still remains of those ante-bellum days - the Old Thompson house which now stands on the corner of Forsyth and Thompson streets, directly across Thompson Street from the post office.

THOMPSON HOUSE (BAGDAD)

This home is an excellent example of the Ante-bellum homes of the area. It was built near and facing the bay but was reversed and moved to face Forsyth Street. It has remained the home of the same family throughout the years.

James Creary, who had been left in charge of operations at Bagdad, was returned from Cuba where he had been taken by the Federals after his arrest at Bagdad during a raid. The firm members started on a period of progressive expansion in the days just following the war that was to continue throughout the years until the final closing of the mill in 1939.

BAGDAD, SITE OF BAGDAD MILL
Here was the site of the Bagdad Mill; which was in continuous operation for 111 years until it was closed down in 1939. The Forsyth and Simpson mill was moved to here from Arcadia.

 

The mill had been rebuilt at the waterfront with one special end in view; in addition to the ease of handling the finished product, that one special end in view had been a greater ease in obtaining the raw material - logs - from a more widespread territory. Another practice grew out of this new policy of the "company," that of supplying of the trade with LONG dimension timber. In order to facilitate the handling of this long "stuff," both raw and finished, an extra mill was built, especially for that material, on an island in the stream directly opposite the original mill on the mainland. This mill was called the "Island Mill" and continued in operation until 1914.

Another "Company" policy which came into common practice at about this time had a rather peculiar genesis. During the days of the reconstruction, the "carpetbagger", and the "scalawag", Florida like all sister southern states had accumulated a state debt all out of proportion to her ability to pay. Worse still, there was absolutely nothing to show for this debt. This new policy grew out of the dire need of the state for operating and indebtedness funds. In order to assist the state in securing these funds the Federal government offered to render to the state those lands within the state classified as "swamp and overflow" lands. The sale of those lands was to be expedited by the state for the purposes of paying the indebtedness into a current condition, encouraging the building of railways and other internal improvements, and the education of the youth of the state.

Before any of these lands could be cleared as swamp and overflow lands, they had to be surveyed and an affidavit signed by responsible parties attesting to the fact that they had ridden over the said lands in a boat. Numerous subterfuges were practiced to get these lands classified as "swamp and overflow" lands, but the most common one was to have the witnesses drawn over the lands in question in a boat - the boat mounted on a wagon drawn by oxen. Much of this land was resold by the state at prices ranging from twelve and one-half cents to one dollar per acre. At about the turn of the present century the holdings of the "company" amounted to nearly two- hundred thousand acres, much of which was located near to waters of the Blackwater and Yellow Rivers and was easily accessible to the mill under its new policy of cutting. The cutting policy maintained at this time was a highly "selective" one. Most of the logs were floated to the mill, and since only well-grown trees of high quality would float satisfactorily, the immature and defective trees were left growing in the Woods.

The hearing of the figures and the achievements of this "company" might lead one into thinking that this was almost a monopoly business. Such thinking would be far from the truth. While this was the largest and most continuous single operation, there were many other operators, some in identical, and others in merely similar, undertakings.

About 1903, after a number of deaths among the partners of this "company," it was decided to sell the entire holdings if a buyer could be found. A Chicago firm, Fentress & Baker, undertook and successfully completed the organization of a company to buy these holdings. Thus after seventy-five years of operation as a partnership (Forsyth & Simpson or Simpson & Company) the "company" became a corporation, Stearns & Culver Lumber Company.

The new company introduced new methods of logging. For the slow laborious method of floating logs, a logging railroad with a system of "spur" tracks was substituted and at time this railway made one-way trips that totaled nearly fifty miles. Even so, the cutting was still somewhat slow and to a certain extent "selective". In 1912 the Stearns & Culver Lumber Co. was succeeded in Bagdad by the Bagdad Land & Lumber Co., an Illinois corporation operating under an Illinois charter. As the name suggests it had as a part of its policy the converting of large tracts of the more desirable cutover tracts into farm communities. However even this company had no SUSTAINED YIELD program or policy for their holdings. This company however did some very fine pioneer work in establishing purebred livestock on the farms of Santa Rosa County. It was under the policies of this company, for instance, that the Florida Livestock Agricultural Farms, Inc. was chartered and began its career as a sort of forward looking experimental farming operation that was to have great influence upon the livestock and agricultural practices of the whole county. Many of the "crackers" were slow to follow some of the practices of the "Munson Farm" but it was surprising how many farmers bought registered Duroc gilts and boars from the herds of that farm.

Within this townsite was grown the very first "Papershell" pecans and they were exhibited the World Fair in Paris. Mr. C. M. Munson, for whom the town of Munson was named and who is still remembered for his civic services to the county, was at one time the General Manager for the Bagdad Land and Lumber Company.

In 1922 the Illinois corporation was succeeded by a Florida corporation operating under the laws of Florida. The principal stockholders of this corporation were southern lumbermen. They continued the operation of the company until its closing in 1939.

This area, such as many other such areas, has gone through widely different stages of development. Roughly these stages of development may be grouped under three headings:

  • The purely pioneer stage when the "squatters" on the land may constitute a labor force but there is likely no fixed occupation.
  • The secondary stage when the making of a home becomes the primary object and the working at "public work" becomes secondary and very often seasonal.
  • The division of the population into two groups: one following the land and the other following "Public work".

When this area or any other reaches this third state there is likely to be social conflict. The impact of these conflicts upon the region may be, and often is, terrific. In this case of Bagdad and Santa Rosa County the conflict of those who followed the land and those who were the "company" became the vehicle for taxation, constantly increasing, and largely AD VALOREM with the value determined more and more, by officials who were elected by the "other side". The tax indeed became burdensome. There was, it seemed, (at least in this case) but one way "to cut the GORDIAN KNOT". The company chose that way. "Cut out and get out". "Clean Sweep".

We can easily observe now at least how much more sensible it would have been to have adopted some sensible taxation system. How nice it would be if we still had a "company" and a lot of "piney woods".

Naturally these developments of the great sawmill at Bagdad did not go on alone, since there is always a parallel development of like industries under a system of free enterprise. None of those parallel developments of lumber manufacturing establishments quite equalled the one at Bagdad in size but their output at times was rather large. The J. A. Chaffin & Co. plant at Milton continued operation for a number of years just at the turn of the century. In part, at least, it was supplied from timbered lands acquired from the older company at Bagdad as they rounded out their holdings. The Robinson Point Lumber Co. under the management of the Tomasellos, followed the pattern of the older company at Bagdad. This plant, a rather sizable one as plants go nowadays, had no rail connections, but depended entirely upon waterways for transportation of both its raw materials and its finished products. Its trade, of course, was to a large extent export.

Another large mill was the one at Bay Point, The Bay Point Mill Co., efficiently managed by the Piaggos and Rosascos and the only one mentioned up to this point that still maintains regular offices and does business under its original name, The Bay Point Mill Co. The mill itself ceased operation but the company still has rather large, though scattered, holdings over this county. One of the interesting facts about this latter mill was that its management over a period of years was of Italian extraction and it did a large business in catering to the lumber needs of certain Italian ports. This business assumed such sizable proportions that a commonly used and spoken of grade for certain types and of lumber was GENOA PINE.

A rather latecomer into the field was the Escambia Land & Manufacturing " (The Pace Co.). As was the case of a number of other companies, their holdings were acquired in part as the "company" at Bagdad rounded out its vast holding; the last such acquisition dating in the years just after World War I. One distinction that sets this company apart from some of the others mentioned is the fact that under another name and to a certain extent in another line of business this company continues operation. It will no doubt profit by the engineering work in methods, management, and other adjustments of the earlier companies in the field.

Other companies acquiring a part of the holdings of the older company at Bagdad that might be mentioned would be: The Alger-Sullivan Lumber, Century, Florida; The T. R. Miller Mill Co., Brewton, Alabama; The Jackson Lumber Co., Florala, (Lockhart) Alabama; The Horseshoe Lumber Co., River Falls, Alabama; and The Pollard Mill Co., Pollard, Alabama.

Another and closely allied line of business that developed along with the mills located along the Blackwater was the shipbuilding industry. At one time there were ways (timbers on which a ship is built and launched) in operation in at least six different yards along Blackwater. Some of the greatest names in shipping and shipbuilding along the Gulf coast had their beginnings in the field here. Taken together with those other names the roster reads like a -"Who's Who": Adams, Anderson, Bushnell, Bruce, Bonifay, Cater, Chaffin, Cross, Creary, Davis, Dennison, Dorr, Ellis, Forsyth, Hall, Hoodless, Jernigan, Lewis, Marquis, Munson, Ollinger, Overman, Roberts, Robinson, Rosasco, Sindorf, Simpson, Stewart, Stevens, Thompson, Tomasello, Wright, and many others. These are all a part of the great pioneering spirit of that little village on the Blackwater. Isn't it a wonderful heritage to hand down to posterity?

 

 

BAGDAD POST OFFICE
This somewhat tiny wooden building has served the needs of the people of this community as a post office for nearly 100 years.
Postmaster General James A. Farley visited here in person and presented a citation to the postmistress, Emma Joyner, upon her retirement.
 
The Bagdad Inn (during early 1900s)
 

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